A Guide for Undecided Republicans⁠⁠⁠

Choosing a president isn’t easy in this election, but here are three ways a principled conservative might vote.

Jonathan Drake / Reuters

The day of decision is nearing. All the talk fades, and one mark must be made beside one box on the ballot. Many Republicans are agonizing. They reject Donald Trump; they cannot accept Hillary Clinton. What to do?

I won’t conceal, I’m struggling with this question myself. I’ve listened to those Republicans, many my friends, who feel it their duty to stifle their anger and disappointment, and vote for Trump; to cast a protest vote for the Libertarian Gary Johnson or the independent Evan McMullin; or to cross the aisle and vote for Hillary Clinton as the lesser evil. On the way to my own personal answer, I found it helpful to summarize the best case for each of these options.

Emphasize the word “best.” If your case for Trump rests on the assumption that America is hurtling toward national doom, if your case for McMullin rests on the hope of tossing the election into the House of Representatives, if your case for Hillary argues that she is a large soul eager to work cooperatively with those who think differently from her. I’d say you are not thinking very clearly. Despair and fantasy are misleading counselors.

Among the difficulties raised by the hard choice before Republicans is this: What is a vote for? Is it an instrument to advance an ideology? An expression of your individual principles and beliefs? Or personal participation in a collective decision? I won’t belabor that philosophical brain-teaser. But it lurks behind every argument I test below.

The Intelligent Conservative’s Case for Trump

You’re a conservative and a Republican, but (in the phrase of the elder George Bush) you’re “not a nut about it.”

You may suspect some degree of media collusion with the Clinton campaign in the timing of the Access Hollywood tapes. Perhaps applying the legal term “sexual assault” to all of Trump’s boorish ogling and clumsy advances seems to you absurdly over-dramatic. But you have no illusions about Trump the man or candidate: You can see he is ignorant, undisciplined, vain, and dishonest—a loudmouth, a bully, and a grifter. You didn’t support him in the primaries. It would not break your heart if a medical event forced him to step aside in favor of Governor Pence as early as imaginable in his first term.

But …

You remember what elections do. Elections choose governments, and then empower those governments to do certain things and refrain from doing other things. A President Trump will do more of what you want done than a President Hillary Clinton will; and do fewer of the things you wish not to be done. A President Trump will try to lower taxes. A President Hillary Clinton will try to raise them. Trump will lighten financial and environmental regulation. Hillary Clinton will tighten it. Trump will direct government spending in ways you are likely to benefit from. Hillary Clinton will try to redirect money away from you to benefit her supporters instead. You don’t blame the young and the urban from voting to move money from your pocketbook to theirs. But aren’t you equally entitled to vote to protect what you earned and created for yourself and your family? It’s not as if you aren’t paying a lot of taxes already—and seeing much of it vanish God knows where, and to enrich God knows who.

At least for the first two years, President Trump will face a Republican Congress. You have no illusions about that either. You know that Trump cares nothing about conservatism or the Republican Party. He’s poisoned his relationship with the House and Senate leadership. However, he’ll sign their bills! It won’t be dignified. There will be scandals. It’ll never be like Reagan again. But then, you’ll never be 25 again. This is good enough for now.

And after all, there is one thing at least you can be sure President Trump will do. He’ll enforce the immigration laws. Even as the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico subsides, the flow from Central America is quickening. Populations are exploding down there: Guatemala’s population has more than doubled since 1980.  A laborer in the countryside earns less than $200 a month,  if he can find work at all: Its economy’s been stagnant for more than a decade.

Beyond our hemisphere, the vast and fast-growing populations of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa are on the move, potentially the biggest migration in the history of humanity. How many millions of them should settle here? And how will America change as it’s repeopled? If anybody’s breaking the rules of democracy here, it’s your opponents, who are importing millions of new voters because they know that if the choice were left only to those Americans born in this country, the Democrats would never be trusted to govern it.

Politics isn’t Starbucks. You don’t get to bespeak your selection from a menu of 80 choices. It’s coffee or tea, that’s it. If the tea’s poisonous, you choose the coffee, no matter how bitter—or how much you would have preferred a caramel soy decaf latte.

Faulty and dirty as he is, Trump is the instrument more likely to do the job you want done.

On the other hand, you don’t have to subscribe to crazy “Hillary’s a serial killer” delusions to recognize the consequences of a third Democratic presidential term. President Obama keeps stressing that everything he did in eight years could be undone if Hillary Clinton loses in November. Obama understands the power of that truth, and so do you. Will you let squeamishness distract you from your political interests and deter you from your political duty? “I agree we should drive the British out of Yorktown, but the trenches are full of icky decaying horse carcasses, so I’ll stay back here”?

No. You hold your nose, grab your musket, and up and over you go. When it’s all over, you won’t remember the stink—only the success.

The Intelligent Conservative’s Case for a Protest Vote

“You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.” So wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of this century’s bravest voices for human freedom. Solzhenitsyn defied a police state to speak his truth. All that’s asked of us is to vote our consciences.

Your principles reject Hillary Clinton. Your values are offended by Donald Trump. Why choose either?

People sometimes tell you to vote as if your vote were the only one that mattered. But that’s just silly. Your vote is never the only one that matters, not even in Florida in 2000.

Voting is an expressive act. It’s your opportunity to send information to the political elites. Of course, you’ll usually choose an imperfectly good enough choice over a worse choice. But sometimes the two choices are both so bad that you want to send a message to the whole system: Remember me! In 1912, nearly 1 million Americans voted for Eugene Victor Debs for president. Did they waste their votes? Debs was the only candidate promising unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, a half-day holiday on Saturdays, and old-age pensions. He lost. His ideas won. Did the Americans who voted for John Anderson in 1980 or Ross Perot in 1992 waste their votes? No, they changed politics. The Anderson voters punished the Democrats for nominating a candidate who was not liberal enough; the Perot voters punished the GOP for breaking its word on tax increases. Both parties learned their lessons—and did not repeat their mistakes.

For months, Paul Ryan urged you to swallow your distaste and vote for “the nominee” in order to advance a Republican agenda through Congress. Look at Paul Ryan’s face today. He has learned the hard way that Donald Trump cannot be trusted and will advance no agenda except his own.

Worse, Trump discredits and disgraces everything he touches. There likely won’t be a Republican party after 18 months of a Trump presidency, just a tangle of warring factions soon to be swept away by a Democratic wave in Congress in 2018. President Trump will then start making deals with the new Democratic majority, and probably more happily so—he always was a Democrat at heart, as he has repeatedly said over the past 40 years. His only consistent interest is self-enrichment. Since he’s so incompetent at business, his default mode of self-enrichment has become cheating and bilking people. Think of that in the Oval Office! Think of that at the head of the Republican Party.

Maybe you’re pro-life? Trump obviously isn’t, no matter what his surrogates preposterously assert today.

Maybe you take seriously those things you send back in 1999 and 2000 about restoring dignity to the presidency? You’ll be electing Trump despite his own on-the-record confession that he harasses and gropes women.

You recoil from the Clinton Foundation? Trump’s is sleazier—and penny-ante, too.

You’re a patriot? Did you ever think Reagan’s party would become Putin’s poodle?

The Supreme Court? If there’s one lesson to learn from Trump’s career, it is to never trust his word for anything.

Yet you don’t want to empower Hillary Clinton either! A President Clinton will probably face a Republican Congress. She’ll do a super-Obama: act by executive order, subverting constitutional restraints in order to aggrandize government and advance the social and cultural transformation of America. You can’t assent to that.

What you want to do is send a distinctly conservative protest against both Hillary Clinton’s progressive ideology and Donald Trump’s con-man narcissism. The bigger the protest vote total, the more respect your conservative ideas can demand in future. Hoist the “Don’t Tread on Me” banner, and check out who else is on the ballot: Libertarian, Independent, or Constitution Party.

The Intelligent Conservative’s Case for Clinton

You don’t vote to send a message. You vote to choose a president.

Maybe you started with Scott Walker, because he had the toughness to face a dangerous world. After he quit, you switched to Marco Rubio. You liked his vision and believed he could win. You ended by hoping that Kasich and Cruz could make a deal.

What you knew from the start was that Donald Trump not only should never be president, but could never be president. He can’t manage a crisis: He goes to pieces under pressure. He can’t build coalitions to pass legislation: When he’s not bullying, he sulks. He can’t lead the Western alliance: He doesn’t understand it or believe in it.

There’s an even bigger question that worries you more. Twenty-first century America seems to you a society under pressure. Crazy ideas that never got a hearing before are suddenly being talked about now. An avowed socialist finished second in the Democratic primaries. The Republican nominee keeps company with racists, anti-Semites, conspiracy nuts, and foreign agents. Mass shootings and race riots at home; Russian and Chinese aggression abroad—and where are America's leaders? The politicians repeat “our diversity is our greatest strength.” They wouldn’t feel the need to say it so often if it were true. The bonds of connection between Americans are fraying in ominous ways—and Donald Trump makes a habit of identifying every weak point and slashing at it until it snaps. You’ve been more successful than most people, which means you have more to lose if things go wrong. As much as you care about lowering taxes and rationalizing regulation, you also care about holding the country together against the pressures tugging every which way.

What you liked about Marco Rubio was that he seemed to share your vision for a more united future. You agree with your pro-Trump friends that change is coming too fast. But they’re crazy if they imagine that they can reverse the past third of a century. We have to start from where we are. This is no time for big, stupid gestures.

Your anti-Trump friends have a gesture of their own in mind: vote for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or write in Mitt Romney. You’re a person who takes his responsibilities seriously. You don’t have patience for gestures, and you don’t live in Utah. If you are recruiting for a job that must be filled, and your ideal candidate is unavailable, you extend the offer to the second most qualified. If he turns you down, then you must hire the next-best after that—and sign her to a very short contract, knowing that you’ll replace her at the earliest opportunity.

That’s what’s called for here. Do you like Hillary Clinton’s program? No. Do you imagine that she will volunteer concessions to you and your beliefs? No again. Would you count the spoons afterward if Bill Clinton came to dinner? For sure. But can she “do the job”—manage a crisis, pay the bills, respond to hurricanes, face national enemies? Obviously. Look at how she’s coped with that maniac Trump on the debate stage. Couldn’t have been cooler. Despite yourself, you’ve been impressed. She’s smart and tough and open to reason. We could do worse. It’s four years—not even. She’ll perhaps be boxed in by a Republican Congress for the first two years; much more probably so in 2019 and 2020. By then, it’ll be time to try again, this time with a Republican nominee not suffering from a major personality disorder.

But whatever happens, you won’t flinch from the reality of the binary decision. Gestural politics are just ways of evading responsibility. “Don’t blame me, I voted for McMullin.” But choices are judged by their consequences, and the consequences here are stark: If not Hillary, then Trump. If not Trump, then Hillary. Since it can’t be Trump, it must be Hillary. You understand why people might evade that unwelcome reality. But you didn’t get where you are by evading realities. You face them, you meet them, you make the best of them. You'll hope for the best, but at least you’ll know you did all you could to prevent the worst.

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